Monday, June 20, 2016

Building A New Computer: Selecting a Motherboard and Memory

In the past I have selected the memory for the system next. But since the Intel Sixth Generation Core CPUs support two different specifications of memory the final selection between the two is made by the motherboard. Then once you get to the motherboard the speed of the memory supported will be different depending on the motherboard.

In the CPU post I settled on the Intel 6700k CPU but then Intel announced their 14nm Broadwell-E CPUs the option for 4-way memory interleave became something to consider so I will revisit the CPU selection slightly.

When selecting a motherboard you really need to decide what you will be using the computer for. I tend to lump home computer uses into the following four groups:

  1. Light Use - Web browsing, Youtube, Netflix/Amazon, light gaming, text editing
  2. Performance Use - Everything in 1 but with a fair amount of text or spreadsheet use and moderate home video editing
  3. Moderate Heavy Gaming - Everything in 2 with playing games with heavy graphics. Also lots of home video editing and some special effects creation
  4. 3D and Video Production - Everything in 3 with light 3D animation rendering
As you move up from type 1 to 4 the performance, graphics and disk support demands increase.

People who are interested in a type 1 system are best off going to purchase an inexpensive system since they will probably spend more doing a custom build. Type 2 and 3 systems can also be purchased pre-built and going pre-built or building your own really depends on your interest on having a system that reflects who you are. Type 4 are always custom built but there are companies that do custom builds of these systems for small businesses and personal use.

Since this is about those with an interest in custom builds I will focus on types 2, 3, and 4. I will also assume that most who will be reading this are fairly new to custom builds. So those of you who have done custom builds please understand when I go over things that you feel is basic knowledge.

Type 2 - Performance Use

This starts out as being for the people that use their computer fairly regularly to support their hobby, support a club, do moderate work at home with this computer, play games that are not RPGs, FPS or Sports simulations. These people will be happy with a decent CPU and a reasonable amount of memory and using the graphics built into the motherboard/CPU combination. A Motherboard with a PCIe 3.0x16 slot will allow you to be happy playing RPGs, FPS or Sports simulations with an added Graphics card. Another characteristic of this type of system owner is one that does not want to make adjustments to the system after it is built and wants it to run for a long time.

Type 3 - Moderate Heavy Gaming

These are the systems for 99% of heavy gamers. Very few games are able to use more than 4 cores. Most are also not limited by memory but are limited by graphics card so more than 16Gb of memory or 4-way instead of 2-way memory gains them very little. This also includes 3D games and playing on Ultra 4k monitors. Both of these are limited by the graphics card than they are on memory access or number of cores. Generally in these systems gain more by a faster CPU speed than more cores. Something to consider is that the more cores in the CPU the lower the clock speed that can be supported. So more cores may actually slow things down. These systems are also more than capable of decent work when editing home video for friends and family.

Type 4 - 3D and Video Editing

First off I will point out that there are a very few games that can use six or more cores or access memory enough that 4-way interleave provides and actual improvement in game performance. Most people that build gaming systems with more than 4 cores or with 4-way interleave are getting more out of bragging about their game system than actual performance gains.

Where more than four cores and 4-way interleave provides significant performance gains is when you are multitasking or memory intensive work. Since for most serious gamers the only thing running when they play the game is the game, multitasking is not a consideration for them. If you have your web browser open to several pages, along with a document editor, a spreadsheet and something like PowerPoint, then you are multitasking and having all of this be very responsive to you a Type 4 system may be what you need. This is also a system that will excel at compressing files into archives, transcoding video from one format to another and photo-realistic 3D rendering and animation. It would also be an excellent system for software development and running virtual machines on.

Choosing the right motherboard for your type

Personally my computer use falls into type 4 but I build type 3 systems due to the cost. But I will talk about how to select a motherboard for type 2 and up.

The first thing to understand about motherboards today is that all are based off of support chips made by the CPU manufacturer. So boards will all have a similar performance in benchmarks. The differences between boards are mostly in the configuration of peripherals and features of the motherboards. Some will also hate me for saying this, but in most situations there is also no real quality differences between Asus, MSI, Supermicro and so forth. I know that people, myself included, have a preferred board manufacturer. So if you do then everything I will talk about are things to look for in a board by that manufacturer. If you do not have a preference, there is no need to absolutely buy the board that I would. If I recommend an Asus and you find one from MSI that you conclude meets your needs and costs less than the Asus, then buy the MSI board. I seriously doubt that you will be disappointed.

Another thing to keep in mind is that reviews, Certified Parts Lists and manufacturers' web pages go out of date. Also the parts lists are based on what has been provided to be tested with and has been tested. You may find that a memory manufacturer has tested components with certain motherboards and have the combination on their list but a motherboard manufacturer does not list the same combination. This does not mean that either is wrong. This happens because the lists are tested and maintained independently. The only list that is every maintained as 100% accurate is the motherboard manufacturer's compatible CPU list. Today the motherboard bios asks the CPU what type it is and configures things based on that information. If the CPU is not in that list there is a good chance that it will not work. For everything else you can use the component makers websites and forums. The reason is that very often the web sites reflect that the product is rushed out. So for example the Asus Sabertooth Z-170 motherboard lists only support for 2133 and 2400 speed memory. A query on the G.Skill forum has G.Skill confirming that their 3000 speed memory works fine. Now does this mean that you can risk 3600 speed memory. Not really. DDR4 memory is extremely sensitive to trace lengths and this really manifests itself the more you overclock it past 2133. Since the Asus Sabertooth Z-170 is designed for ruggedness and longevity they may not have focused on memory overclocking and instead laid things out to support better cooling or the attachment of the motherboard reinforcement. There is a silver lining though. A 3600 speed memory will work fine at 2133 or 2400 speed all that would have happened is that you spent too much for that memory.

While I said that there is very little difference between motherboard manufacturers, I will only look at Asus. The reason for this is that one of the assumptions that I have been making is that there will be some attempt to overclock the CPU. For a long time the Asus motherboards have had the reputation as being the easiest to overclock. Other boards may overclock faster but the Asus are the easiest and reviews of the Intel Z-170 chipset motherboards indicate that this is still true. For that reason I will restrict my investigation to the Asus product line. So onto motherboards for each of the three types.

A quick comment on DDR4 Memory

The standard speed for DDR4 memory is 2133. No matter what the published speed for the memory is this is the speed that you will get without turning on XMP or manually adjusting the memory speed. XMP is a mechanism to store on the memory card information on how to overclock the memory in a way that is supported by the memory manufacturer. XMP is capable of storing more than one configuration. So if you purchase 3000 speed DDR4 the memory will run at 2133 and has the information on how to overclock at 3000 as tested by the manufacturer.

With the benchmarks that test for extreme performance the faster the memory the better the score. However, when you use practical gaming or home computer benchmarks 2666 to 3000 speed is the sweet spot for price and performance. So for all but a Type 4 use there is very little to be gained by paying a premium for the motherboard or memory to get higher speeds.

The best choice for Home Performance

For a Type 2 build the emphasis is on cost and durability. I know how disappointed I was when I had a motherboard give out after a little over a year and I needed to get a replacement. Fortunately I was able to get the same exact motherboard as a replacement and everything worked when I moved it to the new motherboard. But you also want a motherboard with plenty of performance. 

The Asus H110M boards are worth considering but they do not include support for M.2 M-keyed SSDs. This gives up a certain amount of performance since SATA SSDs will only operate at 1/5th the speed of a good M.2 drive. If you do not plan on using a SSD this is a great board though. The Asus H110M-K sells for around $60 and would allow you to attach four SATA drives so you could have an optical disk drive and three hard disks. These also only support two memory modules, but two 8Gb modules will give you 16Gb of RAM which would cover pretty much all uses without needing to swap heavily to disk. DDR4 memory at a speed of 2666 is supported with 16Gb so that is good.

If you want to run SSDs and have the best performance then it is worth looking at the Asus Z170-E motherboard. It supports 16Gb of 3300 speed DDR4 the M.2 SSD in PCIe mode and eight SATA drives. Check the prices for qualified memory you may get a better price with 3000 speed DDR4. At $106 this is a nice mid-range board to build this type of system around.

In this category you want to look at the Asus Sabertooth Z170 Mark I for the gold standard system. It has plenty of 16Gb DDR4 configurations that are supported up to 3400 speed along with support for M.2 SSDs. At $190 it is a little pricey, but it comes with a 5 year warranty so Asus not only built it to last but also stands behind it. It also has a built in cooling system to keep motherboard components and the M.2 drive cool. This is important when it comes to the M.2 drive since if they get too hot they tend to slow down to keep the drive operating within the design specifications. I recommend also using dust covers with all unused slots on the motherboard and IO panel. This motherboard includes a full set of dust covers. So while you are paying a premium, this is a motherboard that is well worth the money if you want a system that will run for years.

The Best Choice for a Gaming System

This is a situation where I would look for motherboards that are in a company's gaming line. In general these motherboards are the most stable for extreme overclocking of the CPU and memory. They also often have Network interfaces that offload as much of the work from the CPU as possible and often options for up to four graphics cards working together.

As an entry level system the Asus Z170 Pro Gaming is a good choice. It supports 16Gb of 3300 speed DDR4 memory and an M.2 SSD in PCIE mode. Overclocking with stability on this board is nearly as good as with Asus' more expensive Republic of Gamers line of boards. With a price of $155 it is a nice system.

The Asus Republic of Gamers line of boards is their premium line of gaming computers. They have both 2-way and 4-way boards in the product line. As I stated earlier most games will not take advantage of the additional cores and are not restricted enough by memory to justify the cost of 4-way memory. So I will look at the LGA1151 boards only for a game system.

As a mid-level gaming system the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Hero is a good system at $200. It has 16Gb of memory supported up to a 3733 speed, 32Gb of memory up to a 3600 speed and 64Gb of memory up to a 3400 speed. So if you get a good deal on fast DDR4 memory it is nice to know that the system will work stably at higher speeds. The larger memory configurations are worth considering since the Asus ROG boards include a utility to create and automatically load up a ramdisk with your game files. After loading them into the ramdisk this will be even faster than the M.2 SSD.

The gold standard motherboard would be the ASUS ROG Maximus VIII Extreme/Assembly. This $610 board has nearly everything you could want. It supports 16Gb of memory up to a 3866 speed and 32Gb/64Gb of memory up to a 3400 speed. Just like with the Hero board the extra memory would be for a ramdisk for the game. This board also includes a 10000Base-T network card to upgrade the 1000Base-T that is standard on all of the boards that I have been talking about. It also includes a USB based DAC module for headphones and a corresponding ADC for the mic for the best sounding gaming audio. Other differences include both Wi-Fi and Bluetooth built into the motherboard. You certainly are getting your money's worth with this motherboard, but the question is will you actually use the additional items?

3D and Video Editing System

This certainly is the system that has the best bragging rights. But I am not really going to recommend a system. Right now the only offering for consumer boards use the Intel X99 chipset. 

Intel has announced that they plan to deliver a replacement for the X99 chipset to be used with the new processors at the end of this year. I am going to wait till then to look at what offerings come out them.

If you really want to build a system like this, take a look at the Asus X99-A/USB 3.1 and the Asus ROG Strix X99 Gaming boards. Both support 64Gb of memory up to 3400 speed and 128Gb up to 3333. The chipset does not seem to support any memory speed faster than 3400.

I will say that using an intel i7-6850K in one of these boards is a nice sweet spot for 3D rendering that supports using the Graphics card for accelerated rendering since you can use three GPUs at nearly full x16 mode on all of the cards. My fantasy system would be one of the ROG Strix X99 Gaming board with three Nvidia GTX-1080 video cards.

Memory

I would suggest getting G.Skill or Corsair memory. These companies have long supported the performance enthusiast. Both appear near the top of every board manufacturers certified memory lists and both have active forums where system builders discuss that they have and have not been able to get to work with the various motherboards.

Both of these manufacturers also offer different styles and colors of heat spreaders on their memory so that they can fit into a color scheme for your build if you have one. Both manufacturers also offer fans for your memory to cool them and often have kits that include the fans.

Conclusion: Look primarily for motherboards based on the Intel Z170 chipset. Since the performance for most of the features on the motherboard are in the chipset that the board is based on boards with the same chipset will primarily differ in features not performance. Read up about each type of system use and in each you will find a low, mid and high end recommendation.

For memory I suggest getting G.Skill or Corsair memory and look to the motherboard manufacturer's qualification and the memory manufacturer's forums on what will work at what speed on the motherboards.

Next in the series: Disk Storage Options

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Building a New Computer: Appendix A - Audio

I have to admit to being guilty of giving in to the Audiophile Placebo effect. What makes me feel bad about this was that in the 1970's the audio industry decided to make the less expensive analog VU meters sound better than the digital versions started calling them by the name of one of the three people who designed it. Which one that was used varied but all made them sound better than the digital version. In reality they were the same inexpensive meters that the more accurate digital meters were replacing.

When I was looking at Motherboards initially the audio circuits were not something that I was using in the evaluation. However, if two boards were comparably priced I often selected the one where the audio description made it sound better. This is where I was falling victim of the Audiophile Placebo effect. If the advertising made it sound like it had better sound, I would hear better sound even if it was not there.

For the same digital sound file there are a few factors that determine how well the computer will do: DAC bits, DAC frequency, interference and the output electrical resistance. Since all on board sound systems use only a few different audio chip sets the first two elements will not be a problem since the bits and frequency associated with the DAC's in these chips far exceed the range of sound that humans can hear.

This leaves us with interference and output electrical resistance.

Interference if present can be readily heard. While the potential for interference is strong inside a computer case, the chance that it can be heard is low. The greatest chance for hearing interference is when using the front panel jacks. Depending on how you run the cable from the motherboard and how other parts are oriented it may pickup and inject noise into what you are hearing. If you suffer from this the best solution is to use the connections on the back of the computer.

This leaves the output electrical resistance. This is harder to quantify since the resistance rating of the headphones that you are using will define how much of the low frequency range you loose. A large number of sites that measure and review this has indicated that low end and high end computer systems generally have the same resistance for motherboard and sound card audio. Any difference is measurable with sensitive equipment but is generally not perceptible by people.

Ok so what differences are real?

Headsets and Speakers

Let's start with headsets of the two.

The quality of the headsets have more of an impact on the quality of what you hear more than your computer sound system. A reasonable guide is the more expensive the better. That is up to a point and with a few exceptions.

I have been told by Audiophiles that headphones that cost more than $500 cost far more than the added benefits. Personally I have never used ones that cost more $100 and rarely spend anything close to that much. So this is the first caveat about the more expensive the better. Try headphones and when you can not tell the difference between them and the less expensive ones, then they are too expensive for you. Over the year we have all done things to damage our hearing and as we get older our hearing changes. So while someone else may be able to tell a difference between a $100 headphone and a $500 one, if you can not then save your money.

Another example of where spending more does not mean better are the quadraphonic or even the 7.1 headphones. In a room where you can set up lots of speakers in the location guided by the channel that they are tied to then the additional speakers make sense. In headphones they add cost and not any better sound. Your computer can properly merge all eight channels of 7.1 sound into stereo. When using headphones all of the sound is right there at your ears just like from the real world when it comes together. The additional speakers in the headset are simply doing the mixing that your computer can do for a much lower cost.

Another situation is wireless. A $70 wireless headset does not have the same sound as a $70 headset. The wireless system adds a cost. Also there is a big difference in the quality of the sound sent to the headset between infrared and blue-tooth types of wireless headsets. My recommendation is to try them out and compare them to wired headsets and use the same guidance that if you can not tell the difference between them and a less expensive version then it probably costs too much.

Now on to speakers.

Unless you simply do not want to wear a headphone, using speakers will give you lower quality sound. To actually get as good of sound as you can get with headphones you will need to have a theater setup with properly located speakers and use the digital optical connection from your computer to the amplifier.

Connecting four sets of speakers to the ports on the back of the computer generally will give you a lower quality sound than you would get with headphones.

However, a decent desktop speaker will be better than the speakers in your monitor.

USB Sound

This is one of two situations where using something other than your built in sound card can result in better sound.

Generally external digital converter boxes have lower impenitence and as such do not lose base like the sound cards and sound on motherboards. So they reproduce a broader range of sound. Digital data is also much more resistant to the electronic noise inside a computer case.

If you want better sound getting a USB driven DAC is an option to consider. Personally I would only look at investing in this if you can actually hear noise.

One interesting thing about this is that the premium Asus ROG Maximus VIII Extreme/Assembly includes a SupremeFX Hi-Fi Audio module. This is a USB driven external DAC that is also shielded so that it can be mounted in an empty external drive bay if you so choose.

I have also not found any USB driven sound system that do not include speakers, like the Jensen SMPS-200A that I have, a headphone-microphone jack pair or are built into a headphone/mic unit. They are not designed to support 7.1 audio.

Optical Sound

Most motherboard and add-in sound cards come with TosLink optical or Coax-Digital ports. These bypass the sound chips and like USB send the raw digital sound signal out to a device for interpretation.

If you really want the best sound from speakers then using one of these ports to connect to a surround sound amplifier and speaker set is the way to go.

HDMI Sound

If you are using HDMI to connect to a monitor or 1080P TV set you may have the option to use HDMI sound. Today most high end graphics cards that have a HDMI port have the ability to send the digital sound information to the monitor/TV.

One problem with this will be the quality of the speakers in the monitor/TV. They certainly will not be as good as an expensive set of speakers and since they are two speakers, in front of you it will be harder to get a proper surround effect like you can get with headphones.

I mention themsince they are an option.

Conclusion

Since the primary use of the computer being discussed is for gaming my advise is to invest in a good quality headset and mic combo. You can try connecting it to a front panel set of jacks. If you here interference then plug it into the back of the computer.

Investing in a separate sound card will not improve your sound. If you are not satisfied with the sound you get out of the back of the computer then investing in a good USB DAC or connecting it to a surround sound system are ways to actually improve the sound. However, most gamers who do a blind test generally do not have problems with the sound cards that are integrated into motherboards.

If you are looking for a quick sound setup and do not plan on using a mic. Using HDMI to connect to your display and the speakers built into it is one option.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Building A New Computer: Selecting the CPU

Selecting a CPU can be a very emotional decision. I know people that swear by AMD processors and those that swear by Intel. At one point there was a clear advantage to AMD in the pre-Pentium days when the AMD x86 chips could perform many operations in fewer clock cycles than the original Intel chips. Since then the line has become very blurred. Each new generation of chip is faster and the chipset to support each new generation offers more and more for the board manufacturer.

Both AMD with their Black product line and Intel with their K stock numbers have surrendered to the overclockers since both of these have the overclocking inhibitors disabled and are marketed specifically to the hobbyist overclocking community. So no differentiation there.

Right now there is a year between when Intel releases their new generation of CPU and when AMD also does so and we are in the time between when Intel has released and before AMD will release. Generally for computer building hobbyists this has been an uninteresting time. For the last several releases Intel released chips for laptop use with each new generation and then for desktop use about the same time that AMD was releasing theirs.

This time Intel decided to shake things up. First they announced that with the sixth generation core chips that they would move from a two year development cycle to a three year cycle. If you want to know more about this you should be able to find many articles on this using your favorite search engine. The reason for the change though does not have any impact on my CPU decision. Second Intel announced that they would be shipping desktop CPUs first and that the laptop versions would come later. This is a big impact though since there will be nearly a year before AMD's chips become available for the computer hobbyist.

So if you want the latest and greatest the only choice today is the Intel CPU. Fortunately there are other reasons to go with Intel instead of waiting.

The product development name for the sixth generation core CPUs from Intel is Skylake. The Skylake CPUs use less power than the early marketing materials claim for the next generation from AMD. For example the third generation i5-3470 that I am using is rated at 77w normal power consumption. The sixth generation i7-6700 is rated at 65w for the more powerful processor that is 0.2 GHz faster.

Power has a direct relation to heat and heat impacts overclocking and chip life. The Skylake CPUs even use less power than previous generations of Intel's core line of CPUs. Also since Intel has deliberately kept the mounting specifications for the LGA-115x line of CPU sockets the same. So existing cooling solutions will continue to work and will have an easier time keeping the CPUs cool than they have in the past.

So the question now is i3, i5 or i7 and which model withing those lines.

the i3, i5 and i7 denote how many parallel cores and how many threads each core can process independently. i3 has the fewest and i7 the most. Since the plan is to overclock there is no need to look at anything but the 'K' models. This limits the decision to i5-6600K and i7-6700K. Currently there is a $105 average difference in the price between the two.

For my use the decision has to be the i7-6700K. Last night I did a test render of a single frame for a potential 3D animation project. It took 15 minutes with the third generation i5 processor. Simply moving to a third generation i7 would have cut this down to 10 minutes given benchmarks that I have seen. Intel advertises that the sixth generation CPUs are 2.5x the processors of five years ago. I prefer the more conservative estimate of 40-50% faster. So that test render would have taken 6-7 minutes. In practical terms this would mean that a minute of animation would take 6-7 hours instead of 15 hours. This is very important to me.

For gamers most of the difference between the i5 and i7 can not be measured. For those that play certain extreme games there is a big difference. Take that into consideration when you choose.

Conclusion: Use the Intel i7-6700K. If you want to save money you can use the i5-6600K and still benefit from the rest of this series.

Next in the series: Selecting a Motherboard and Memory